David Loeb, editor of the new Bay Nature magazine, was recently out hiking with his 12-year-old son. He started naming off the trees as they passed them, to the consternation of his son.
“He said, ‘Why are you naming the trees?’” Loeb recalls, affecting a frown that perfectly evokes adolescent dismay at the uncoolness of one’s parent. “I said, ‘Well, it makes me feel like I’m home.’”
Loeb pauses, ruefully. “He knows all the corporate logos . . .”
To Loeb, 50, the incident captures the paradox of modern life in the Bay Area: a teeming metropolitan center near the heart of the tech industry where 6.5 million people are packed into 7,000 square miles; and at the same time, the site of some of the greatest natural beauty in America, including the largest estuary on the West Coast and more than half a million acres of county parks.
“We live in a unique area,” Loeb said. “There’s an incredible natural diversity here and there’s also an incredible cultural diversity.” Besides being an epicenter for technological research, the Bay Area is a center for environment research.
“We see an opportunity to share this research with a wider community,” he said.
The Berkeley-based Bay Nature, a new quarterly which premiered in early January, seeks to acquaint urban dwellers with the natural beauty of their surroundings.
“This is all about getting people to see the world around us as a natural part of our home,” Loeb says. “I’d like people to have a broader concept of home than just the four walls we live in.”
Bay Nature is, in the words of its publisher, “dedicated to the intelligent and joyful exploration of the natural places – large and small – of the San Francisco Bay area, and the species (humans included) that inhabit them.”
The first issue is full of treasures, richly illustrated with color photos. Fiction writer Linda Watanabe McFerrin offers a look at the sometimes glorious, sometimes stinky history of Lake Merritt, which just happens to be America’s first wildlife refuge. Geologist Doris Sloan explains the cliffs overlooking the Golden Gate. San Francisco Chronicle outdoor editor Paul McHugh has written a vivid history of San Francisco Bay that includes such tidbits as the fact that the missing half of Half Dome is probably on the floor of the Bay and that the ocean shore once began at a point some 30 miles west of where it is now, out beyond the Farallones.
There’s a whimsical photo page called “Bay Area Blues,” featuring everything from blue flowers to the blue-tailed skink (that’s a lizard, for those who don’t know). Inquiring readers can “Ask the Naturalist” by sending their questions in to columnist Joe Eaton. There’s even a cartoon by “Farley” comic-strip author Phil Frank.
Future issues will include verse by renowned poet Robert Hass, a look at development encroaching on the Diablo Ridgelands, and articles about sharks, bats, and coho salmon in the Bay Area – which for purposes of Bay Nature encompasses not only the nine counties which touch the Bay, but Monterey and Santa Cruz to the south and the Central Valley to the north.
The magazine has been four years in the making. Loeb, former editor of the Oakland-based Report from Guatemala, says he recognized the need for a publication that focused on Bay Area nature during a hike one day when he was soaking in the beauty of his surroundings but realized he knew very little about the flora and fauna around him.
He turned for advice to Malcolm Margolin, founder of the independent Berkeley press Heyday Books. As it turned out, Margolin himself had long had an interest in just such a publication, and he offered to act as publisher for the new magazine.
It was just the push needed to get the idea off the ground. Margolin is widely known and respected among the literary and environmental communities. “To have Malcolm behind a project really means a lot,” says Amy Hunter, a former Heyday employee who is director of advertising and marketing for Bay Nature.
Still, no one expected the project to be quite so long in the making. “We decided we wanted to do it right,” says Loeb. He and Margolin worked slowly, securing funding from grants and foundations, building an initial subscriber base, inviting input from groups like Save the Bay and East Bay Regional Park District.
Then last June Bay Nature opened its modest office above a restaurant on Sixth Street and its tiny staff began drawing salaries. The magazine celebrated its premiere issue January 17 at a standing-room-only launch party at the San Francisco Main Public Library, and the response was “overwhelming,” Loeb says. In just a month, the subscription base has jumped from 1,400 to 2,200, and the phone these days rings almost continually with calls from environmental groups, writers and photographers, readers, and others eager to contribute or otherwise offer their support.
“Mostly it’s the feeling that we’ve struck a chord,” Loeb says. “People are saying things like, ‘It’s about time!’ and ‘Why didn’t this already exist?’”
That’s music to his ears, confirmation that there is a hunger among Bay Area residents to connect and more fully understand their special spot on the globe.
“I think there’s a feeling that we’ve lost a sense of connection to where we live, and we may lose the place we live in,” he says. “If we don’t feel this sense of connection to the landscape, human society will stop.”